- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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At the beginning of Saturday's open practice, a Connecticut fan stood and led the crowd in a UConn cheer.
The Huskies themselves were sitting in a circle in the middle of the court, stretching, looking up at the crowd in mild amusement. After all, it's not unusual for Connecticut women's basketball fans to travel well -- certainly not when the destination is the Final Four in New Orleans and definitely not when their team is playing Notre Dame, a squad that has made the Huskies look very un-Huskies-like the past few years. UConn fans know all too well the recent results against Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish have won two consecutive Final Four games against the Huskies, all three meetings this season and seven of the past eight games between the two programs.
But does any of that matter? When UConn-Notre Dame tips off Sunday night (ESPN, 8:30 ET), the squads playing each other in the Final Four for the third consecutive year, will anyone -- that is, anyone who's actually on the court -- be thinking about the recent results between these two powerful teams? Doubtful, say players on each squad. "Yeah, I don't think it matters," Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins said. "Not to me. Right now, I don't think the past three games matter."
Connecticut guard Kelly Faris offered a similar sentiment: "I think we've said it multiple times. It's not about the X's and O's with us two teams. We know them like the back of our hand."
More likely, the outcome of Sunday's game will be determined, at least in some part, by two UConn freshmen: 6-foot-4 forward Breanna Stewart and speedy guard Moriah Jefferson. Stewart is finally playing the kind of dominant basketball most predicted she would all season, now providing the Huskies with a potent, reliable offensive option when the team's outside shots aren't falling. Stewart has a season average of 13.1 points per game but scored 17 points in UConn's regional semifinal win over Maryland and 21 against Kentucky in the regional final.
"When you're that highly skilled and highly touted, you're going to get to experience a little bit of everything," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "And how you handle that, in the end, will determine the kind of player you are. And certainly Breanna Stewart, in five months, has gone through all kinds of things to get to where she is now."
But Stewart, hyped throughout the preseason, is a known commodity, while Jefferson is still flying a little under the radar. This means the 5-foot-7 guard could be Sunday's X factor. It's no secret the Huskies have struggled with some of their backcourt play this season. They use senior Caroline Doty as the starter, but then give many of her minutes to a combination of players, including Jefferson and junior Bria Hartley.
In the Bridgeport Regional, Jefferson slid into the sparkplug-off-the-bench role rather easily, providing feisty defense and speed in the open court. She scored 10 points against Maryland and 10 against Kentucky. Meanwhile, she averages just 4.8 points per game this season.
When you examine how Connecticut lost its four games this season, you understand even more the importance of Stewart's and Jefferson's development. Because most of those losses came down to the wire. In one of the losses to Notre Dame, the Huskies needed more of a steady offensive weapon in their half-court sets, someone who could get them a high-percentage shot after winding down the shot clock. On Sunday, that player could be Stewart. In another loss to Notre Dame, UConn's backcourt looked lost and made a number of costly turnovers. On Sunday, don't be surprised to see Jefferson -- who has played only a total of 16 minutes against Notre Dame this season -- on the court for crucial stretches.
Auriemma explained that his freshmen have gone through a bit of a metamorphosis this season. "So much was expected of them to have to perform at a really high level, and maybe they felt some of that throughout the season," he said. "But that doesn't exist anymore. And I'm not sure it's anything I've done so much as something they've changed."
The entire UConn team looked relaxed Saturday, smiling and laughing and making one shot after another during open practice, which teams use as more of a glorified shootaround than anything else. Of course, the Fighting Irish looked comfortable, too. Both teams will go back to their respective hotels and watch more game video, trying to see whether they can glean any additional insight into an opponent they know oh so well.
But Faris had it right when she said this game won't be decided by clever X's and O's, no matter how much video the coaches watch. Sunday's game is about playmakers.
Each side has them, but whose will make more?
UConn and Notre Dame know each other too well to have their fourth game of the season come down to X's and O's. Sunday's semifinal is simply about which team has more playmakers step up.